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Louisiana Vouchers Go To Court

“Louisiana’s high court to hear school voucher suit today”
by Mike Hasten
Alexandria Town Talk
March 19, 2013

Attorneys on both sides of the debate over using public funds to pay for students to attend private schools are honing their arguments for a showdown today with oral arguments before the Louisiana Supreme Court.

No witnesses may be called and each side has a limited amount of time to present arguments. Written arguments have been filed, so justices are familiar with the case.

Baton Rouge District Judge Tim Kelley’s ruling that using the funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, violated a constitutional provision that says the fund can only be used for public schools has drawn national attention. Organizations on both sides of the issue are at loggerheads arguing for separation of church and state or for offering children the best chance for an education.

The Interfaith Alliance has joined an amicus brief in the appeal that challenges the program on the grounds of religious freedom. The brief, authored by another Washington, D.C.-based organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and also joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that public funds should not be used to teach religious belief.

“Let me be clear,” said the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance and pastor at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, “I am not bothered by a Christian school teaching its students the same tenets that children in my church learn every Sunday. What I find appalling is that these schools are teaching theology in science, history and math classes and, through school vouchers, are doing so with my taxes. I defend their right to teach future generations about their faith, and the right of any Louisiana citizen to choose a private religious school over a public one — but neither the parents nor the schools should receive financial support from our government to do so”

Many of the schools accepting voucher funds are religion-based and use religion-based curriculum.

“Louisiana legislators are siphoning money from tax-starved public schools to feed private schools that promote dogma and aren’t accountable to the taxpayers,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s a travesty, and the court should put an end to it.”

The anti-voucher groups are on the side of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana School Boards Association, the organizations which originally filed suit challenging the Legislature’s Act 2 of the 2012 session as being unconstitutional.

The Washington, D.C.,-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, The Institute for Justice, the American Federation for Children and Stand for Children, national organizations pushing school choice, also are involved on the state’s side. They argue that children in failing schools deserve to receive vouchers so they can have a chance to receive better education.

Black Alliance President Kenneth Campbell said after Kelley’s ruling, “As a result of this decision, hope and opportunity have been taken away from families who are only trying to escape failing schools and gain access to better educational options.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal, the lead proponent of the vouchers and a larger education initiative, called Kelley’s ruling “wrong-headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.”

But this particular argument before the high court is over whether state money in a fund that has traditionally paid for public school education can legally be used to pay private schools to educate students who normally would attend public schools.

It’s not about church and state or whether children deserve a better education. It’s about the constitutional use of state funds.

Kelley did not rule that vouchers are unconstitutional; only that it’s unconstitutional to use the Minimum Foundation Program to fund them.

The attorney general’s office hired Jindal’s former executive counsel, attorney Jimmy Roy Faircloth of Alexandria, to represent the state in the case and the appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Faircloth maintains that it’s the state’s responsibility to provide the best education available and that schools graded C, D and F schools are failing to do that. The vouchers are available to students who are zoned to attend schools with those grades.

After Kelley’s ruling, a second Baton Rouge jurist, District Judge Michael Caldwell, threw out the other piece of Jindal’s education package, Act 1, which primarily deals with tenure, because the legislation contained too many objects. The Louisiana Constitution contains language that limits bills to a single object.

Besides making it harder for teachers to earn tenure and easier to lost it, the bill also stripped school boards of the authority to hire and fire teachers, required school systems to submit superintendents’ contracts to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, eliminated salary schedules and eliminated layoff policies based on seniority.

The state also has appealed Caldwell’s decision.

Kelley didn’t rule that Act 2, the voucher bill, contained too many objects, but Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers union, said the organization is asking the Supreme Court to rule on the issue. He said the federation has filed a “cross appeal” to the one filed by the state asking the Supreme Court to rule.

Besides vouchers, Act 2 cleared the way for creation of numerous charter schools and set up a “course choice” program so outside sources can offer online and in-person classes that aren’t available in local schools.

“We are confident that we will win in the Supreme Court,” Jindal and White have consistently said, expressing confidence that Kelley’s ruling would be overturned.

But for the first time Thursday, Jindal said he would call the state Legislature into special session to re-approve the bills if the high court rules that House Bill 2 was unconstitutionally constructed.

The Black Alliance is sponsoring a Tuesday morning rally at the Supreme Court building in New Orleans to show support for vouchers. Parents of children enrolled in voucher schools are to tell of the successes their children are having in private schools.

The hearing is set for the court’s 2 p.m. session.

“We hope that the letter of the Louisiana Constitution will prevail,” said Joyce Haynes, president of the LAE. “Judge Kelly made the decision to uphold what is set forth in the constitution of the great state of Louisiana. It’s sad that our governor continues to ignore the constitution and spend money on attorneys and court fees all at the expense of Louisiana tax payers.

“We’ve been fighting for the 99 percent of Louisiana families who chose not to partake in the voucher program,” she said. “We need to adequately fund the institutions where the vast majority of our students learn, and a majority of Louisiana’s students learn in public school classrooms. As advocates for public education, it is our job to make sure that our public schools are adequately funded so that the educational experience is optimal for all of Louisiana’s children. This is their constitutional right.”

Monaghan says the Louisiana Department of Education is ignoring the state Constitution in its pursuit of its ideas of improving education.

White’s newest concept is “Louisiana Believes,” which is also the name of the Education Department’s website.

“It’s more of a belief system” he said. “If the research is there” proving something works, “they believe it. If it doesn’t, they ignore it.”

The new Minimum Foundation Program presented to the Legislature does not contain the traditional language referring to funding being in compliance with the Constitution.

If the Supreme Court upholds Kelley’s ruling, the funding formula will have to be reworked. It currently funds vouchers through the Minimum Foundation Program.